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Monday, 25 August 2008


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Ahhh, back to photographic criticism. That love the Chinese, hate authoritarianism dichotomy was driving me crazy.

Is it just me, or is this photo something of a Rorschach Test? If so, then I must be failing because I don't see anything special about this image. I looked at the photographer's gallery, and the only one I liked was 'Skyline'.

Oh, well, that's why it's art....

Thanks for the link. I've been wandering through his galleries and found much worth viewing, including some images that make me stop, look and try to be clearer about both how they affect me and what I think about them.

I don't expect to like all of any photographer's work. Crovella's is no different. The particular one you have chosen as meaningful to you just does nothing for me.

I didn't 'get it' on first viewing, on the basis of his description nor on the basis of your analysis.

Chacun à son goût


I believe I remember Kim. Show ran on Sundays maybe? Lots of new stuff. "HFS of the 80's was a gem that almost doesn't exist anymore. (KCRW maybe?).

I don't get it...this reminds me of that
"chain link fence" shot of a few months back that was also completely forgettable and ordinary.

If this is random excellence, then when I take a look at the dreck I am producing, I guess I should give up and stay at home watching Matlock reruns:



I like that first one.

What's this about "Matlock"?

Mike J.

The world has just as much room for banal photography as it does for exquisite photography. I know I'd get really tired of looking at nothing but super sharp, saturated landscapes and commercial photography all time. Different strokes for different folks, so they say. While what Paul (and myself, to be honest) is attempting may not be the most original style ever, it beats the hell out of the millions of look alike images that dominate most every digital photography forum and mainstream magazine out there.

I'd argue that a majority of people take more interesting photographs before they learn how to "be a photographer." After they do, it's cookie cutter landscapes and macro flower shots ad nauseam. Their snapshots had way more personality.

I don't get this. It's like abstract art where you can read almost whatever you think of into a painting.

"The palm tree looming behind the fence shows the centuries-long struggle of our people for freedom." (This is a paraphrase of a frequent comment about "art" during the Communist era. :-))

BTW, Stephen, I like the second one. I like the fuss around the driver who seems completely emotionally detached.

Mike, thanks for showing me this photograph and also commenting upon it.

Sometimes I make, and afterwards admire photographs that don't have any of the standard landscape tropes [though I do still strive for sharp focus - sorry Joseph]. Most of the folks who see these pictures don't know why I took them or like them. And I can't explain, even to myself.

I think this is a matter of education. I'm an engineer by training, and what I've learned of art comes from reading and gallery visits. Lacking the learned vocabulary to describe my pictures, I cannot talk about them.

You talk about formalism in relation to this picture. For me that word means a certain stiffness of manner in social situations, or a mathematically rigorous specification in technical situations. I have no idea what it means when applied to a picture.

Could you tell me more about this please? Can you help me to acquire a vocabulary that would allow me both to coherently describe other people's formalistic work, and talk about my own. If you can point me at a useful book I'll even buy it from amazon.co.uk via your link!!



That particular picture does nothing for me personally. But it is in the same genre as pictures by Raymond Depardon that leave me open-mouthed with wonder and admiration - the "pulling a striking composition out of nothing" genre.

Mike - this is an image of a locked up palm tree, sitting alone and forlorn in a deserted parking lot. Its sad!

Its nothing more! Its a statement of hopelessness.

Why do we try to read into images things that arent there and things the author most probably didnt intend! I dont have a problem with people adding their own comment to an image but I feel you have gone over the top on the intent of this one as I believe the points you make will be laughed at by the author - although I am sure he will be gratified his efforts have been seen as artistic.

Critics - arghhh!

rant over!


It's certainly random but excellent? No way. I can see the emperor's skeleton as far as this one's concerned and, ever the critic, I think it's dire. Not to put too fine a point on it...

J London,
The "author" doesn't get to say how I look at it. (Anyway the author does not like me, does not approve of this website, and I've been half expecting him to ask me to take his picture down--which he will probably do if and when he sees this--and I will take it down if he asks me to.)

And what's over the top about saying that I look at the shapes and forms?

Your conception that it's "an image of a locked up palm tree" is not quite right either. It's *this particular* image of a locked up palm tree. "Locked up palm tree" does not define its whole aspect or meaning. The picture contains the meaning but the meaning does not contain the picture. There could be a thousand other pictures of locked up palm trees and not one of them the same as this one.

Mike J.

"It's certainly random but excellent? No way. I can see the emperor's skeleton as far as this one's concerned and, ever the critic, I think it's dire. Not to put too fine a point on it..."

Perhaps, but perhaps art is not a democracy, and excellence not a poll. I can't serve up what you like; I only have myself.

Mike J.

This may be a bit off-topic, then again, perhaps not.

I once read that if you are discussing whether something is art, then it's art.

Just because you (or I for that matter) don't understand or, heaven forbid, like it doesn't really matter. I don't know where people get off calling this or that art, or this or that real or worthy photography (usually their own), but dismissing other styles.

Do I like it or get it? Not really? Does my opinion matter to the artist? No, it doesn't. Live and let live.

Those of you who (rightly) say you "don't get it" are ignoring the advice of the post. I'm saying you should try to get it. Spend some time at the photographer's website. Look at his pictures. See if you can begin to understand what he's driving at, how he sees, what's important to him. It's immaterial whether you like it, but "getting it" is the point I was talking about. Don't capitulate to not getting it.

Mike J.

"...somewhat humorous sense of isolation of a palm tree on a barren lot behind locked gates."
That's exactly what I saw on first glance - and if it weren't for the discussion here a glance is all I'd have given it.
Thanks for keeping our minds open Mike.

Cheers, Robin

What _I_ don't get is this exact photo. I can see the elements you mention but they don't mesh into a whole for me. As to the site, there are much more interesting photos that explore shapes. Like the thumbnail image for Ontario, Alameda and Fremont galleries. Or Circles/door/cart in Fremont and No Skateboarding in Antioch galleries. Or almost the whole of Other gallery.

Maybe it's because I need a strong and noticeable composition, but this palm tree - nada.


"locked up ... sitting alone ... forlorn ... sad ... a statement of hopelessness. ... Why do we try to read into images things that arent there and things the author most probably didnt intend!"

John, all of those are emotive terms, and all of them are reading something into the photograph. "Sad" is not an object that can be photographed, it's an interpretation, and one the photographer may not have intended.


I get it, and thanks for drawing my attention to it. Your 'reading' of the photo is very similar to mine, and a very informative critique. I hope the photographer gets as much out of it as I did.

Perhaps the purpose of the artist is not to make you think what he thought, but merely to make you think. As long as the work creates an impression, or generates a response of some kind, wouldn't the "artistic purpose" be fulfilled?

In the same sense, isn't an artwork which is experienced differently by each people more "successful" than the obvious work which just doesn't lend itself to multiple interpretation? Food for thought.

(Yes, my point of view has been changing since the whole chainlink fence discussion).

I love a lot of boring photographs (and make my fair share of them). This is not one of them I'm afraid. In many boring shots at least I can often find some redeeming quality in the light, the composition or the tonality, even if the subject matter is nothing special. This one leaves me empty.

I often take pictures like this and for exactly the same reasons Mike talks about - the placement of the "stuff" in the composition, like the yellow rectangle. For that reason I can see exactly what Mike means in this picture (I think) and I can enjoy it for those reasons. However, even though I take pictures like this, I've never expected anyone else to enjoy them as there isn't much in there for someone else to enjoy.

Don't be sad. Date palms like that are becoming an endangered species within the Phoenix city limits, and should be zealously guarded. You won't find them in the 'burbs.

I'm getting to this late. (Geez guys, gimme a break...I was actually working on images from yesterday. )

I understand the apparent shrug consensus over this image. But while we often decry pointlessly oversized photo prints this may be a good example of a woefully undersized presentation. I would like to see this printed at 24"x24". Yes, while much of the frame is actually empty there are details and relationships in there that are lost in a 72dpi version. That "No Parking At Any Time" sign on the fence, for example. What's on that yellow sign in the far background? Is that actually a red fire hydrant at frame right?


I know nothing of Paul's work beyond what he's presented online. But based on what I've seen I suspect that he selects his scenes and compositions with a keener sense of humor and irony than this tiny thumbnail would reveal.

Paul G. wrote, "I once read that if you are discussing whether something is art, then it's art."

I'm not sure that I would sign onto that sentiment carte blanche, but this is similar to my personal views on the subject of artist's intent vs. audience understanding. [Warning: long detour ahead.] In one of my high school English classes, we analyzed a number of Shakespeare's sonnets. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his sonnets, these are incredibly dense poems with layer upon layer of meaning. As a result, it seems as though it is possible to attribute at least two meanings to each word. The class discussion took place at a fairly high level with suggested interpretations flying back and forth. At some point, a student [inevitably] asked whether Shakespeare actually meant any of this stuff, or whether we were just reading all kinds of symbolism into the sonnets that he never intended. My personal feeling was (and is) that Shakespeare intended to insert most of what we were discussing, but I also realized that I didn't really care whether he intended it or not. Why? Well I suppose it depends on what you are trying to get out of reading a poem or analyzing a picture. Is our goal to figure out what the artist intended? Should it be? The artist's intent may be relevant and it may be interesting, but I don't feel that it should dictate how or whether I enjoy a piece of art or whether I learn from it.

Within the context of my high school English class, our purpose was decidedly NOT to decipher Shakespeare's original intent (a matter best left to those who have at least graduated from high school and conducted scholarly research). It was to develop our analytical skills and to sensitize us to the idea that literature can work on multiple levels and should not always be read on the surface. Why? Well not to discover "hidden" meaning for the sake of intellectual one-upmanship, but because this can actually be pleasurable. The double and triple entendres are intellectually stimulating, humorous and combine to create shades of meaning that would be impossible to convey through separate single-meaning phrases.

Similarly, learning to "read" works of art on multiple levels allows us to enjoy them in different ways. This isn't voodoo. Analyzing pictures can be a completely subjective intellectual experience and still be legitimate. Assume for the moment that Mr. Crovella didn't notice or care about any of the elements that Mike described above. So what? The picture exists. Mike saw it. He noticed elements of the picture and how they related to each other. The picture and his formal reading of it brought him pleasure or at least engaged his analytical skills (the two are often related). This is perfectly normal, legitimate behavior.

I believe that people are objecting to the idea of projecting this analysis back onto Mr. Crovella, as a retroactive explanation of why he took the picture. But note that Mike was careful NOT to do this and in fact indicates that the photographer was motivated by other considerations, namely humor. Does that fact invalidate Mike's analysis? Should he not enjoy the picture, if his reasons for enjoying it are not the same as those that motivated the artist to take it? Nonsense. The two are entirely compatible.

Moreover, someone else could come along and "read" the picture differently, using an unrelated analytical approach, and that person's reading would also be legitimate. Mike's "formal" reading isn't the only valid analysis. This is why scholars tend to reinterpret works of art through the ages, applying new theories and approaches over time. Criticism and scholarly research in many (but not all - or even necessarily most) ways say a lot more about the authors and the present than they do about their (usually historical) subjects. In this respect, it doesn't matter whether it is possible to get at the "truth" using these methods, assuming such a thing as THE truth even exists. We can learn something about ourselves by applying various approaches - "the method is the message", so to speak. I believe that criticism and analysis is a part of our intellectual tradition that has helped shaped our culture and that it forms a distinct body of work in its own right. At the very least, criticism has given us a language to describe our intellectual and emotional responses to a lot of art. And this language is constantly being refined and expanded...

Finally, I would also note that I greatly appreciate the fact that Mr. Crovella made the effort to actually say something about his motivations and thoughts. Just a single sentence, but it allows us to enjoy the picture from a different perspective.

Best regards,

I happen to know Paul, we have been on photoshoots together. I am truly glad you "discovered" him. He's not only a truly great person but IMHO also a very talented photographer with a clear vision. As always, the web doesn't do real justice to most of his images.
As to the people that don't "get it", well, I'd say you have done a fine job of explaining why it is truly excellence what we are talking about here.

"Photographing nothing" sounds about right. I love finding pictures in the spaces between the things that people look at.

'Don't capitulate to not getting it'

Oh my, does this mean I have to try and get rap music as well?

But I do like the picture. It's very carefully composed, thoughtful.

@Thiago: Amen, brother!

[Bet you never thought I would say that! ;-)]


"Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until…it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture…and came out the other side as Art Theory!…Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision…late twentieth-century Modern Art was about to fulfill its destiny, which was: to become nothing less than Literature pure and simple". --- Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, 1975

(Required reading for anybody who wants to flap their lips about art. It's a short read and well worth it.)

re: the photo.....let's face it, it's takes a major dose of "art theory" to make anything out of that image. Same with most of the others on his site.
Sorry Mike, but it's a miss..........

"Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, 1975"

Trite, reactionary, middlebrow trash, sez me. (Sorry, Greg...!) Talk about flapping lips and and literature "simple" if not purely so. I've always loathed that book.

Mike J.

I do get it! The pattern of the composition needs some attention before it pops into view, is not obvious at first sight, but once I found it, it was really powerful. Everything is in its right place. Looking at some of the other photos in Paul's portfolio, the patterns may be more obvious, easier to find, but in my opinion less satisfying in the long run. Anyway, I am planning to carefully go through this portfolio, it contains pictures that I can really relate to.


Accusing people of "not getting it" is the standard comeback of artists - and some art critics - when you criticise their work.

I'd respectfully suggest, Mike, that what you have to get is the fact that sometimes there is nothing to get.

And sometimes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, etc.

I didn't "accuse" people of not getting it. Look at Stephen Scharf's comment, and Erlik's, or Paul G.'s...they all state that they don't get it, using those words, and several other people say essentially the same thing using different words. They said so, not I.

If anyone doesn't want to get it, that's fine. I don't like rap--or opera!--so I don't try with either one. You can't make an effort with everything, and we naturally restrict ourselves to things we judge might have some sort of payoff for us. (I guess I would never state flatly that there is "nothing there to get" in the case of either rap OR opera, but maybe that's just me.)

Mike J.

I dunno, I think "fundamental aperture" is a wonderful turn of phrase but
OK, we'll leave Tom Wolfe out of it, regardless of whatever telling points he may or may not have put forth about art and art critics, and stay with the parking lot-locked palm tree. I think your infatuation with that image must be a result of some truly lyrical
music that was on your sound system when you
viewed it, because as an image (devoid of any words attached thereto) it's truly lost, indistinguishable from any random drive-by urban snapshot.
However, Beauty's in the eye of the beholder, and it's a big Universe and Music is a higher form of communication......
Best wishes...

Would Bruce or Greg or anyone in this thread who didn't like Paul's picture like to choose the next "Random Excellence" for the site? I'm serious, and this isn't a trick. The only condition is that it not be a risqué picture that might embarrass readers in workplaces or schools, and it has to be something you choose by some relatively lesser-known photographer--no Weston Peppers or other already-annointed masterpieces. And I promise I won't pick apart or make fun of your choice.

If you're interested, please contact me (right-hand column, where it says "Email Me").

Mike J.

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